Stepping stones: the evolution and impact of disruptive technology

by Jim Park and Love-Ese Chile


On Thursday March 28th, we gathered on the unceded territories of the Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations, to follow in their teachings and to discuss how we can instil ecological values into our technological advances.

Over time, the introduction of new technologies has impacted both society and the environment and reshaped the way we live and interact with each other and the world at large. In this salon, we explored a path of evolving technologies that interconnected over time to help create the reality we call society.

We centred ourselves around the idea that though we cannot guarantee that technology will give us all the answers we require, it is our duty to come together and better understand its possible implications as best as we are able. We hoped that our learnings would help us to better understand how we got here; where we are now; and how to prepare for tomorrow.

Past Technologies Which Reshaped Our Culture

To see where we’re going, we have to see where we’ve come from. The first part of our salon reviewed some key inventions that have brought us to the world we live in today. Many of the participants were likely familiar with some of this history, but we wanted to look at these inventions as stepping stones leading us to our present situation, and the new disruptive technologies we would be discussing.
We started with an explanatory video, From Stone Age to Tech Age The Big Ideas that Shaped History. This video gave us an introduction into how different technologies unfolded to help shape the world into a better place.

Our first exercise explored past technologies that reshaped our culture. These included: the printing press, radio, television, telephones, cell phones, computers, mobile browsing and the internet.
On large worksheets, participants were asked to discuss positive/constructive and negative/destructive social and environmental impacts of one past technology (see Pictograms and Alphabet below). These ideas were noted on the worksheet and posted on the wall for everyone to review before opening up for a group discussion.

Taking the printing press as an example… Invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1454, the printing press was originally used to print vast quantities of Bibles; soon, ordinary people began to gain new knowledge about the world from science and other sources that had been printed using this new invention. The ability to read and experience the thoughts and stories of others spread quickly among both the elite and working-class individuals around the world through the creation and distribution of cheap books, pamphlets and other written materials. Duplication allows for more efficient distribution of knowledge and creativity.

The impacts of this mass printing technology included:
• Documentation of historical persons and events.
• Spread of doctrines and belief systems.
• Increased mining production of metal ores, with an increase in employment for miners and support industries.
• Pollution of air, soil and water by waste products from mining and printing operations.
• Tree harvesting for lumber and pulp.
• Ecosystem disruption, soil degradation, and wildlife declines from habitat destruction, hunting, and increased public access to wildlife areas.

Many overarching themes arose from our group discussion on these past technologies. We collectively explored how that in some cases technology reduced demand for certain animal by-products, but also lead to the over-consumption of other natural resources and creation of uncontrolled waste streams. Positive social impacts from these technologies included widespread access to knowledge and better healthcare and improved communication between communities. However, the negative social impacts that also arose were things like addiction, isolation and disconnection, slavery and inequality as well as centralization of power and control in the hands of a few (see Impacts of past disruptive technologies below).

The group determined that the aspects of these technologies that were most valuable were the ability to improve: accountability and responsibility, equity in allocation of resources and efficiency and accuracy in decision making. But their major limitation were pollution and waste as well as potential for slavery and inequality.

Current and future technologies that are reshaping our culture

New industries are rapidly developing which disrupt the status quo and drive our culture into unexplored domains. The goal of this salon was to explore how specific technologies changed society’s lens in the past and will continue to do so indefinitely. Many of these historical worldviews are being re-envisioned through innovative technologies and their potential to transform the way we live. The second half of the salon we explored current and future technologies that are reshaping our culture.

Disruptive decentralized technologies can be described as: “A technology that displaces an existing technology and shakes up the industry or a ground-breaking product that creates an entirely new industry.”

Fragility describes the ability to respond to change. Trying to touch a snowflake or too much movement around an egg and they will melt and shatter. Fragile things are strongest when they are in one state, and fragile things are easily broken by constantly changing conditions.

One way to get past fragility is through decentralization. Having one central structure from which we take all our needs is a sure-fire way for things to get broken. A system can gain flexibility by distributing or delegating away from a central location or group. The idea of centralization is to have local pockets of technology and innovation that are more resistant to change. In the same way a spider web is stronger with multiple connection points, the world wide web is strong since it has many different connection points, so if one goes down, the whole system is still stable. The same cannot be said for some of the established structures we have in our society.

Our second exercise was designed to allow participants to become familiar with some of the disruptive technologies that we will all be dealing with in the near future. Participants were asked to match symbols with the name of a technology and the industry it is disrupting.

After completing the matching exercise, as a group we watched introductory videos for each of the disruptive technologies. Following each new disruptive technology presentation, participants discussed the potential positive and negative social and environmental ramifications of the technology and noted their key points on a worksheet. Participants were also asked to think about how current industries are fragile and how the new technologies are decentralized.

3D printing   –   disrupts the manufacturing industry

Renewable energy – disrupts the energy sector

5G technology – disrupts the telecoms industry


Internet of things – disrupts the entertainment industry

Machine learning – disrupts the automation industry

Artificial intelligence – disrupts the computing industry

Blockchain technology – disrupts the logistics industry

Cryptocurrencies – disrupts the finance industry

We took the example of renewable energy. Until recent times we have mostly relied on fossil fuels as our one central energy source. This energy was also distributed through one electrical grid. If we were to run out of fossil fuels or have a breakdown in the grid, our entire energy system would go down. In this way, the use of fossil fuels is a fragile system. Instead, by using the various types of renewable energy, with the potential to have local grids, we are shifting to a more decentralized energy system that is much more resilient.

Emerging themes from the discussion of new technologies paralleled the earlier group discussion. It was noted that these new technologies could reduce demand from materials and land-use, they could also decrease the environmental impact of transportation and freight. However, the trade-offs were expected to lead to higher energy use, greater consumption of scare resources and potential generation of new waste streams. Positive impacts to our society included more empowerment and redistribution of power as well as lower mortality and greater access and communication between communities. Participants highlighted that the new technologies had the potential to be have negative implication if there was not controlled use in some areas, and there could be the development of new social and economic divides.

Technology is a tool that amplifies human nature. These tools can be wielded by many and will be used develop the social and cultural norms of the future. Many of the emerging technologies discussed in the salon are in their early stages, which means now is the time to be instilling our values of sustainability and equity into their development so we can mitigate some of their negative impacts.

In closing we asked participants to consider how the evolution of technology requires both analytical and inspirational influences. Can we use both our heads and our hearts to shape a world where technology is able to help us create a better world for all?

Thank you to all those who joined us. We hope the participants enjoyed themselves and learned something new. We hope that you are better prepared to face the challenges of an advanced technological society that is rapidly becoming part of our way of life.